After hearing new complaints of rent gouging at mobile home parks, a divided City Council has agreed to consider imposing a rent stabilization system in January.
The council also may consider a rent freeze at its next meeting Dec. 16, but the council's instructions to the city staff Monday night were so ambiguous that staff members said they do not know whether they have been instructed to prepare a rent moratorium ordinance or not.
Councilwoman Nell Soto proposed that the city impose a moratorium to give tenants and landlords time to resolve their differences. But because the matter was not listed on the agenda, the council could only tell the staff to draw up an ordinance for the next meeting.
Mayor Donna Smith and Councilman Boyd Bredenkamp refused even to participate in that action.
Smith said that giving the staff formal instructions without first listing the rent moratorium on the agenda could be interpreted as a violation of state law. So the mayor not only refused to vote, she also would not touch the machine that electronically records the votes.
While Smith moved aside, Councilwoman Paula Lantz, who with Councilman Ken West opposed the moratorium, reached over and pushed the button at the mayor's desk to record the vote.
Councilmen Tomas Ursua and Willie E. White sided with Soto, making the vote three in favor, two opposed and two abstaining. Some city staff members interpreted that to mean the motion had carried, but others did not because the mayor failed to announce whether the motion had passed or failed. So the staff will ask the council for a clarification.
"It got a little hazy," City Administrator Julio Fuentes said.
Soto said that even if the moratorium proposal is on the agenda Dec. 16, its chances of passing are "very slim."
Ursua said the council is unlikely to approve a rent freeze or strict rent control. But, he said, he believes that a majority will be willing to establish a system to protect tenants against exorbitant rent increases.
By an informal consensus, the council asked the staff Monday night to survey the city's mobile home parks to determine the extent of the problem and to draft regulatory options to be taken up in January.
Ursua said the system he envisions would attempt to mediate disputes and, if that fails, require tenants and landlords to accept binding arbitration. He said the system would not require the elaborate financial scrutiny of a full-fledged rent control program but would protect tenants against extreme rent increases.
The council chambers Monday night were filled with about 150 mobile home residents, who complained that park owners are raising rents drastically and coercing them into signing long-term leases on unfavorable terms.
Ursua said some tenants say their rents have doubled in two years, but a survey is needed to document this claim and to determine how widespread the problem is.
Michelle K. Brooks, regional representative of the Western Mobilehome Assn., which represents 1,800 mobile home parks statewide, urged the council in a letter to reject rent control.
Rent control, she wrote, is costly to administer, invites litigation, must under state law exempt tenants who have signed leases for longer than a year and could diminish the city's supply of affordable housing by encouraging park closures.
Brooks said Pomona's mobile home parks have some of the lowest rents in the county, starting at $200 a month. Many Pomona park owners have worked hard to keep rents low and to impose controls would unfairly damage their investments, she wrote.
One local park owner, John A. DeFalco, told the council that he subsidizes tenants who cannot pay their rent for financial reasons. But, he said, rent increases are necessary to cover costs.
He said he tries to run a fair business but conceded that some park owners may treat tenants unfairly.
"I hope a couple of bad apples in the barrel don't ruin it for the rest of us," DeFalco said.
Joan Stoner, regional manager of the Golden State Mobilehome Owners League, a statewide organization of mobile home residents, said she is not advocating regulations that would keep owners from meeting expenses or earning a fair profit.
"We're just asking for some kind of fair rent for the people," she said.
Rent regulation is the only protection open to tenants, Stoner said.
"If you are in an apartment and the landlord raises your rent, you can just pack your belongings and move," she said.
But mobile home owners do not have that option, because of the shortage of parks and the expense of moving. As a practical matter, Stoner said, "you can't move. You're a prisoner."
Alan Cartnal, who started the rent freeze movement in Pomona, said rents have escalated so much that some residents are abandoning their mobile homes. There is no market for the homes if park rents are exorbitant, he said.